Emperor's Cult

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EMPEROR'S CULT . Ruler worship was a characteristic statement of Greco-Roman paganism, reflecting its definition of godhead as a power capable of rendering benefits to the community of worshipers, and its ability to create an endless supply of cults in honor of new and specifically entitled manifestations of such beneficent divine power. The granting of cult honors to a ruler, living or deceased, was an act of homage made in return for his bestowal of specific benefits upon the community. It recognized him as the possessor of supernormal power and sought to regularize his beneficent relationship with the community by establishing the formal elements of cult, including feast days, festivals, priesthoods, and shrines.

Actual cult worship of the ruler was uncommon in pharaonic Egypt and extremely rare in ancient Mesopotamia. The Roman practice owed nothing to such Near Eastern antecedents. Rather, it was formed entirely under the impress of developments in the political and cult life of Greece. At first the Greeks offered posthumous cult honors to particular individuals distinguished for bravery or other personal prowess. Then, in the late fourth and third century bce, it became common for individual cities to establish cults in honor of living rulers. Already in 218 bce Roman state religion adopted the Greek practice of personifying and worshiping the collective personality of the citizen body in the cult of the Genius Populi Romani ("genius of the Roman people"). From the early second century bce on, Rome's emergence as the dominant political force in the Greek world led individual Greek cities to establish cults in honor of Roman generals and provincial administrators who had rendered specific benefits to the community concerned. In the first century bce, the last century of republican government at Rome, this practice of establishing municipal cults to Roman statesmen was intensified under the impact of such charismatic leaders as Pompey (d. 48 bce) and Julius Caesar (d. 44 bce).

After his assassination, Julius Caesar was deified. Within the context of the Roman religious mentality, this means that he was officially recognized by decree as a divine entity who had bestowed supernatural benefits upon the Roman people and in consequence had been granted immortality by the gods. Caesar was thus worthy to receive continuing cult worship from the Roman people and accordingly was adopted into the pantheon of the state religion with his own temple and feast day. With this development the imperial cult became an official part of Roman religion. The guidance and regularization of such cult expressions was a key feature in the monarchical system established during the long reign of Augustus (31 bce14 ce), and the forms that he established were determinative for later developments. During the first and second centuries ce, many cities throughout the empire founded cults in honor of successive emperors. The intensity of such worship began to diminish in the third century. In the fourth century, with the adoption of Christianity as the official religion and subsequent imperial prohibition of all pagan cult activity, the worship of emperors came to an end.

Under the Roman Empire there was no single imperial cult. Instead, there was a wide variety of cults of the emperors, which took three main forms: the official state cult of Rome, municipal cults of cities in the empire, and private cults.

In the Roman state cult, worship of the living emperor took the indirect form of the cult of the emperor's genius, the divine element and creative force that resided in the emperor and guided him like a guardian angel. Following the precedent established in the case of Julius Caesar, numerous emperors, such as Augustus, Vespasian (d. 79 ce), and Trajan (d. 117 ce), were recognized as divinities (divi ) upon their decease; a formal ceremony and a senatorial decree attested to their apotheosis and new status as immortal. Following the tenets of Stoic philosophy and popular belief, such deification was regarded as an attestation of the "virtues" of the emperor; that is, the emperor had been the vehicle for the operation of divine and beneficent qualities like Peace, Abundance, Victory, Liberty, and Security, which through his person and activities had operated for the benefit of his fellow citizens. Under such names as Pax Augusta, Abundantia Augusti, Victoria Augusti, Libertas Augusti, and Securitas Augusti, these imperial virtues were themselves the object of widespread cult activity at both the official and the private level.

Quite apart from the official pantheon of the Roman people, cities throughout the empire established cults in honor of emperors both living and deceased. Moreover, cults of particular emperors were established by private individuals and especially by corporations. The emperor himself was the main object of cult worship; but in Roman cult, municipal cults, and private worship, deification of members of the imperial family was increasingly common from the time of Augustus on.

In founding cults, building shrines, and maintaining regular worship, the imperial cult was one of the most vital features of Greco-Roman paganism in the first two centuries of the Christian era. To be sure, there were those who criticized the worship of an emperor or of any mortal as an act of impiety; moreover, there is no real evidence that men and women turned to the divine emperor as they might to Apollo or Asklepios in time of sickness or personal crisis. But it would be wrong to dismiss the imperial cult as the empty product of political sycophancy or religious decay. The function of the emperor as divinity was not to alleviate illness or to intervene in personal crisis. His divine power functioned in the sphere of material benefits, the delivery of free grain to a famine-stricken region, gifts of money to victims of earthquakes, and the general securing of peace and prosperity throughout a vast empire. In these terms he was called and genuinely regarded as "savior and benefactor of the human race." He was regarded as a divine entity who had been chosen by the supreme god Zeus/Jupiter to rule humankind with beneficence as the earthly vicegerent of the gods. His reward for fulfilling this task was immortality. From this perspective, the imperial cult was a forceful and creative response to that need for a unity of shared belief that is essential to the integration and successful functioning of a pluralistic society. Fostered by a well-orchestrated and all-pervasive system of imperial propaganda, the image of the emperor as a divine savior sent by the supreme god and triumphant over fate and death played a seminal role in the development of the terminology and content of Christian soteriology.

See Also

Apotheosis; Deification.


For an extensive bibliography, see Peter Herz's "Bibliographie zum römischen Kaiserkult," in Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt, vol. 2.16.2 (Berlin and New York, 1978), pp. 833910. Useful collections of evidence can be found in Charisma, 2 vols., by Fritz Taeger (Stuttgart, 19571960), and The Imperial Cult in the Latin West by Duncan Fishwick (Leiden, 1985). For interpretive studies that treat the imperial cult as a religious as well as historical phenomenon, see my Princeps a Diis Electus: The Divine Election of the Emperor as a Political Concept at Rome (Rome, 1977); "The Cult of Jupiter and Roman Imperial Ideology" and "The Cult of Virtues and Roman Ideology," in Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt, vol. 2.17.2 (Berlin and New York, 1981), pp. 3141, 827948; and "Gottesgnadentum," in Reallexikon für Antike und Christentum, vol. 11, (Stuttgart, 1950).

New Sources

Brent, Allen. The Imperial Cult and the Development of Church Order. Leiden, 1999.

Campanile, Maria Domitilla. "Il culto imperiale in Frigia." In Frigi e frigio. Atti del primo Simposio Internazionale, Roma, 1617 ottobre 1995, edited by Roberto Gusmani, Mirjo Salvini, and Pietro Vannicelli, pp. 219227. Rome, 1997.

Campanile, Maria Domitilla. "Ancora sul culto imperiale in Asia." Mediterraneo Antico 4.2 (2001): 473488.

Campanile, Maria Domitilla. "Asiarchi e archiereis d'Asia: titolatura, condizione giuridica e posizione sociale dei supremi dignitari del culto imperiale." In Les cultes locaux dans le monde grec et romain. Actes du colloque de Lyon 78 juin 2001, edited by Guy Labarre, et al., pp. 6979. Paris, 2004.

Cerfaux, Lucien, and Julien Tondriau. Un concurrent du christianisme: le culte des souverains dans la civilisation gréco-romain. Tournai, 1957.

Clauss, Manfred. Kaiser und Gott. Herrscherkult im römischen Reiches. Stuttgart, 1999.

de Jonge, Henk J. "The Apocalypse of John and the Imperial Cult." In Kykeon. Studies in Honor of Hendrik S. Versnel, edited by H. F. J. Horstmannshoff, H. W. Singor, F. T. van Straten, and J. H. M. Strubbe, pp. 127141. Leiden, 2002.

Fischler, Susan. "Imperial Cult: Engendering the Cosmos." In When Men were Men. Masculinity, Power and Identity in Classical Antiquity, pp. 165183. London, 1998.

Friesen, Steven J. Twice Neokoros. Leiden, 1993.

Friesen, Steven J. Imperial Cults and the Apocalypse of John: Reading Revelation in the Ruins. Oxford, 2001.

Gradel, Ittai. Emperor Worship and Roman Religion. Oxford, 2002.

Liertz, Uta-Maria. Kult und Kaiser: Studien zu Kaiserkult und Kaiserverehrung in den germanischen Provinzen und in Gallia Belgica zur römischen Kaiserzeit. Rome, 1998.

Price, Simon R. F. Rituals of Power: The Roman Imperial Cult in Asia Minor. Cambridge, U.K., 1984.

Reynolds, Joyce M. "The Origins and Beginning of Imperial Cult at Aphrodisias." Proceedings of the Cambridge Philological Society 26 (1980): 7084.

Reynolds, Joyce M. "New Evidence for the Imperial Cult in Julio-Claudian Aphrodisias." Zeitschrift für Papyrologie une Epigraphik 43 (1981): 317327.

Schmid, Stephan G. "Worshipping the Emperor(s)." Journal of Roman Archaeology 14 (2001): 113142.

Small, Alastair M., ed. Subject and Rulers: The Cult of the Ruling Power in Classical Antiquity. Papers presented at a Conference held in The University of Alberta on April 1315, 1994, to celebrate the 65th anniversary of Duncan Fishwick. Ann Arbor, Mich., 1996.

J. Rufus Fears (1987)

Revised Bibliography